The final year of probation done in our houses after studies and professional training is called Third Probation.
In the Third Probation the candidate must acquire “final perfection” as far as possible, especially in charity, humility, meekness, patience, and intimate familiarity with God.
The faculty of admitting to the Third Probation resides with the General and those to whom he delegates this faculty.
At their entry into the Third Probation candidates will be asked whether they remain firm in their resolve for religious life.
The Third Probation is like a second, higher Novitiate, hence all efforts must be directed to achieve a more intimate union with God through prayer, mortification, silence, meditation on the Scripture and on the Fathers, and the guidance of the spiritual director.
Candidates will be taught the third part of ascetics, which treats of intimate union between human beings and God and the perfect consecration to love of God and neighbour.
The Superior in charge of those in the Third Probation shall be a person of a certain authority who ought, if possible, to have had experience of governing others and for whom candidates would have great esteem.
Candidates should not be made Coadjutors of the Society immediately after their academic or professional training, but should be exercised in some ministry of charity for one, two, three or five years, either before or after the Third Probation. Real virtue proved in action is needed for our way of life, a veneer of virtue is not sufficient.
Fr. Bertetti’s account of the words spoken by Fr. Founder as he handed over to him the final and authoritative copy of the Constitutions, as his last solemn testament just before his death, could be seen as a warning against any changes and innovations that deviate from what is written in the Constitutions:
“….In order not to change the nature of the Institute it is necessary to observe faithfully all that it is set out in the Constitutions. It could happen that the reason for some enactment is not seen at first sight. But I assure you that I have studied everything profoundly and that with patient meditation you will find a reason for it all” (see Constitutions, Translator’s Preface).
The point, however, which is often neglected but of great importance, is that Fr. Founder is extremely “flexible”, allowing for a variety of possible situations and actions. Expressions such as “as far as possible”, “at the discretion of the Superior”, “it is left to the prudence of the superior to decide” abound throughout the Constitutions. There is even a passage, which could be applied easily to other situations, that reads, “A case can be visualised in which the anointing of the Holy Spirit, rather than simple human foresight, suggests to superiors something different from that laid down here” (C568 E2).
This flexibility and openness is evident especially in the Sections that deal with formation, as one would expect from Fr. Founder, who places the most profound respect for each individual person at the centre of all educational endeavours. In the article, quoted elsewhere and entitled, “Rosminian Spirituality and Biblical Theology”, Fr. T. Deidun makes the very same point in the much wider context of the end or purpose of the Institute itself:
“We exist as an Institute for one purpose: to form loving individuals. In that case, the whole attention of the Institute must be focussed on the person of its present members: not on organisation, government, structures or works: but on the person. We exist for the person. The other things are important; some of them extremely important: but they must take second place to the person” (pp.19-20).
The Third Probation brings about the end of scholasticate years, according to the progress and the discerning decisions made by both Superiors and the individual person. Essentially a period of studies and of professional or technical training, against the constant background of spiritual engagement and progression, the scholasticate is the “learning” period for the religious.
At the end of it and before the heat of the immersion in practical works of charity, the Third Probation is a year of pause, a kind of second and higher novitiate, a year of intense personal prayer and of intimate union with God.
Coadjutor vows, for Fr. Founder, should not follow immediately at the end of the Third Probation. There is another important stage for the religious who has “learned so much” during the scholasticate: he has to put all his learning into practice, he has to be tested by the fire of practical and continuous engagement in the ministry chosen for him by obedience. It is only at the end of “one, two, three or five years” of active life in the ministry that the religious will be finally asked to make his definitive and wholehearted commitment to the Institute by taking the Coadjutor vows, that seal the whole period of formation of the religious.
“They should not be made coadjutors of the Society immediately after their academic or professional training, but should be exercised in some ministry of charity for one, two, three or five years, either before or after the third probation… Real virtue proved in action is needed for our way of life; a veneer of virtue is not sufficient. The love of God, which they have obtained for themselves during the novitiate, must be translated into love of their neighbour so that the fervour of charity which glowed in the quiet of contemplation may burn in works of active life” (C414).
Writing to Puecher in 1837, Fr. Founder says, “… one thing we must never do and that is: admit to the grade of Coadjutor those who have not given practical proof of being filled with the spirit of the Institute” (EC6: 497 emphasis in the text).
We shall see in the next session the precise meaning of the “grade” of Coadjutor in the Institute, and discuss, perhaps, whether the new rule of making perpetual and Coadjutor vows at the end of the Third Probation (Rule of Life no.57) makes it more difficult to understand the precise significance of the grade of “Coadjutor” whilst giving a different slant to the whole purpose of the Third Probation. At the time of Fr. Founder, simple or “scholastic” vows were taken at the end of the novitiate and such vows were “perpetual” (C444).
Coadjutor vows, expressing full incorporation to the Institute, were taken after “one, two, three, or five years” of practical apostolic work in the ministry assigned by the Superiors after the long period of academic or professional learning. Not perpetual vows, therefore, but Coadjutor vows brought to an end the period of preparation and incorporated members fully into the Society. The Third Probation stood by itself, as a special time of contemplation and of love of God in prayer, a period of grace before full immersion into active ministry.
It is often said that specific problems of individual persons become more noticeable after the learning period of the scholasticate, and precisely during the first period of their active life. Do Formators think that the reasons for the present praxis of taking Coadjutor vows at the end of the Third Probation, sanctioned by the Rule of Life and the Ratio – apparently supported by Canon no.1019.1 - are sufficiently strong for changing the very definite and clear purpose of Coadjutor vows as envisaged by Fr. Founder in the Constitutions? Do they think that the occasional works of charity undertaken during the scholasticate are sufficient to test the “learning” with the fire of the active life?
*Canon 1019.1 states that perpetual profession must take place before the reception of the diaconate: candidates must “have become perpetually or definitively members of the Institute”.
The Third Probation: a second, higher novitiate
“In the third probation the candidate must acquire final perfection, as far as possible, especially in charity, humility, meekness, patience and intimate familiarity with God. The exercises and practical experience of this probation shall be suitable, therefore, for persons already more perfect” (C397).
“The aim of the third probation is more intimate union with God” (C402E2).
This year of special spiritual preparation should be organised very much like the novitiate. Silence, prayer, meditation, constant feeding on the word of God in Scripture and on the “holy fathers” should be the fundamental guiding principles. “Besides the time for prayer which the novices normally have, each one will have the time helpful to his own individual devotion. They will practise mortification. They will seek silence, quiet. Like the novices, they will allow themselves to be led by their director” (C402).
We have already seen that Rosminian Ascetics consist essentially of three stages, which, although clearly defined and separate are all “inseparably bound to one another”: the first stage is the purification of conscience and eradication of all vices, the second stage is the constant practice of all virtues which proceed ultimately from the simple acknowledgement and love of truth, and the third stage is the intimate union with God.
The first stage is most appropriate during the two years of the Novitiate, the second stage should be perfected during the scholasticate, and the third stage should become the main concern of the period of the third probation (C404). This is the reason for the insistence on prayer, on meditation of holy Scripture, and on the reading of the Fathers during the third probation: the focus is on perfect union with God.
The Third Probation, therefore, stands on itself; its direct function is not to prepare for public commitment, but to strengthen the spiritual life of the religious, to help the religious blossom in his vocation of perfect consecration to the love of God. It is a year of grace, of being with JESUS on the mountain in loving conversation with the Father, through the unction of the Holy Spirit.
Life of Prayer and Vatican II
There are many passages in the documents of Vatican II that link closely the vocation to the religious life to intimate union with God through a life of prayer and of meditation on holy Scripture. This is, for example, what Perfectae Caritatis says, “They who make profession of the evangelical counsels should seek and love above all else God who has first loved us (1 Jn. 4,10). In all circumstances they should take care to foster a life hidden with Christ in God, which is the source and stimulus of love of the neighbour… For this reason, members of institutes should assiduously cultivate the spirit of prayer and prayer itself, drawing on the authentic sources of Christian spirituality. In the first place, let them have the sacred scripture at hand daily, so that they may learn “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ JESUS” (Phil.3,8) by reading and meditating on the divine scriptures” (PC6)
Another document entitled, “Instruction on the contemplative life” has a footnote that carries many references to the writings of some of the Fathers of the Church on the importance of prayer in the religious life:
“According to the tradition of the Fathers, the contemplative life portrays the prayer of Christ in solitude or on the mountain top. This is what Cassian writes, “Yet He withdrew into the hills by Himself to pray, thus giving us an example of withdrawal so that we likewise retire into solitude”. Jerome also says, “Seek then Christ in solitude, and pray alone with JESUS in the hills”; and St. Isidore, “But the fact that He passed the night praying in the hills, entails a foreshadowing of the contemplative life”; and Jerome again, “When He prayed, He typified the contemplative life; when He sat to teach, He exemplified the active life… Going out to the hills to pray and going out towards the multitude, He portrayed the union of both lives”. William of St. Thierry says, “The solitary life was intimately patronised by our Lord Himself and longed for in his presence by his disciples. When they who were in His company on the holy mountain saw the glory of his transfiguration, immediately Peter… decided that it would be good for him to stay there forever”. (Vatican II, p.660; see also Vita Consecrata, p.21).
Candidates to the Third Probation could be asked to do some research work on “Prayer” both in the Scripture and in the Documents of Vatican II.
The Third Probation provides an excellent opportunity for religious to study in depth the Constitutions. Fr. Founder says that “they must be devoutly instructed about the nature of our way of life from the Constitutions, which they must read in their entirety and weigh carefully, and which the instructor must explain” (C400).
Experience of more and greater works of charity is also recommended, as it is all through the various stages of formation. For Fr. Founder charity must not be “sterile”, a simple matter of “learning”, but must always tend to be operative, and therefore engagement in works of charity has to have a place in any education programme. However, works of charity during the period of formation must always be “subsidiary means”, helping formation but not becoming the primary purpose.
Fr. Founder wrote in one of his letters, “It is one of the greatest dangers and quite contrary to our spirit to want to use the members in works before they have been formed according to the prescribed programme” (EC6, 751 – emphasis in the text); and Canon Law no.660.2 states, “During the period of formation members are not to be given offices and undertakings which hinder their formation”.